Friday, March 29, 2013

Ecuador to Sell a Third of its Amazon Rainforest to Chinese Firms, Despite Protests of Indigenous Groups

Indigenous rights groups in Ecuador have sounded alarm bells over the Ecuadorean government’s plans to auction off over three million hectares of rainforest to Chinese oil companies, despite opposition from local tribes living in the vast area. As Business Insider notes, the land in question amounts to more than a third of Ecuador’s 8.1 million hectares of Amazonian rainforest.

Jonathan Kaiman, a Beijing correspondent for The Guardian, reports that Ecuadorean politicians discussed bidding contracts with Chinese oil firms on Monday at a meeting in Beijing, after previous meetings in Quito, Houston and Paris saw demonstrations by indigenous groups.  Seven indigenous groups living in the affected areas oppose oil exploration, and last fall this coalition released a statement in which they denounced the bidding process as a violation of their collective rights.

But the Ecuadorean government claims it is already working with local communities, and has met their demands to exclude some land from the bidding process. From The Guardian:

In an interview, Ecuador's secretary of hydrocarbons, Andrés Donoso Fabara, accused indigenous leaders of misrepresenting their communities to achieve political goals. "These guys with a political agenda, they are not thinking about development or about fighting against poverty," he said.

Fabara said the government had decided not to open certain blocks of land to bidding because it lacked support from local communities. "We are entitled by law, if we wanted, to go in by force and do some activities even if they are against them," he said. "But that's not our policy."

Interestingly, it could be argued that the bidding process is unlawful on the Chinese side as well. According to the U.S.-based Amazon Watch, oil exploration in the area violates recent guidelines announced by the Chinese Ministries of Commerce and Environmental Protection, which mandate that Chinese companies must "promote harmonious development of local economy, environment and community."

News Briefs
  • El Espectador reports that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have released a statement saying they will reject any peace deal that calls for rebel leaders to be jailed, in response to an to an alleged government proposal that the group surrender and FARC commanders spend “a few years” in prison. This could prove a sticking point for negotiations, because while the Colombian Congress has already passed legislation which places limits on criminal prosecution of FARC members, a total amnesty is likely impossible and some guerrillas -- including leaders -- will have to stand trial.
  • Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo reported yesterday that David Axelrod, former chief strategist for U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, will be advising Brazilian senator and Social Democracy Party (PSDB) member Aecio Neves in his campaign in next year’s presidential election.
  • The Brazilian government has announced that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon increased by 26 percent in the last six months.
  • After tendering his resignation last week, Michel Forst, the United Nations' Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti, sent an open letter to Haiti’s press in which he harshly criticized the country’s lack of progress on human rights issues. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter, which reportedly accused the Haitian government of arbitrary detentions, interfering with the court system and threatening journalists.
  • Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose criticism of the U.S. embargo on Cuba has been in the news of late, expressed a more nuanced opinion on the policy in a recent interview with Television Martí. When asked last week if she was in favor of lifting the embargo “without conditions,” she responded: “I think that it is clear that there should be conditions [for lifting the embargo], and that above all there should be a long process of debate before doing so.”
  • While former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s return to Chile and subsequent announcement of her candidacy for president this week was positively received in the country, there are already signs that she will face opposition if elected for a new term in office. Matias Sotelo, a former activist in the student movement, made headlines in Chile for approaching Bachelet in the Santiago airport and criticizing her last administration. According to El Mostrador, Sotelo said “The people will not forgive or forget, and the students won’t either,” and “remember your betrayal in 2006,” referencing a hunger strike by Mapuche indigenous activists that year.
  • As Venezuela’s April 14 presidential election draws closer, both the opposition and the Chavista camp appear to have taken to instilling the race with religious significance. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles characterized the election as a “spiritual battle” earlier this week, and the government funded VIVE TV recently aired this rather crudely-animated cartoon depicting Hugo Chavez meeting Simon Bolivar and other leftist Latin American heroes in heaven.
  • Mexico’s peace movement, headed by poet and activist Javier Sicilia, celebrated its second anniversary yesterday, also the second anniversary of the murder of Sicilia’s son by members of a drug gang. La Cronica de Hoy reports that he commemorated the anniversary by announcing that the movement would seek to have the recently-constructed Pillar of Light (Estela de Luz) in Mexico City converted into a memorial for the victims of Mexico’s drug war.
  • The government of Argentina has been given until midnight Friday to clarify how it will comply with the terms of a ruling ordering the payment of $1.4 billion to creditors who lost money after the country’s 2002 default. On February 27 the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered Argentina to come up with a proposal for paying the creditors, but as the AP notes, the government has maintained that the investors should get the same treatment as other creditors, who accepted a deal in which their bonds were exchanged for others of lesser value. Many fear that Argentine defiance of the Court’s ruling could lead to another default, which would be detrimental to the economy.
  • Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, whose 1971 book “A Theology of Liberation” popularized liberation theology across Latin America and brought members of the Catholic Church closer to the social movements of the era, has endorsed Pope Francis’ vision of a "Church of the poor." Writing for the website of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, where he teaches theology, Gutierrez commended the pope for apparently recognizing that the “the authentic power of the Church lies in serving the poor.” Praising Pope Francis is an interesting move for Gutierrez, as the pope himself is a staunch critic of liberation theology.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Can a Bachelet Reelection Meet Expectations in Chile?

After two years at the head of U.N. Women in New York, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet returned to Chile yesterday and formally announced her candidacy in the country’s presidential elections this year. At a speech in Santiago, Bachelet told hundreds of supporters that she had “taken the decision to be a candidate,” ending months of speculation over whether she would run in the November 17 election.

In her speech the former president said the main goal of her administration would be addressing income inequality in Chile, which in 2011 had the most uneven distribution of wealth of any Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country. Noting the general discontent with the current government, she said she believed “the enormous inequality in Chile is the main reason for the anger,” and vowed to end it. Chile’s Radio Cooperativa has a helpful rundown of the speech’s other major points.

Bachelet is immensely popular in the country. She is expected to easily win a June 30 primary election against three lesser-known candidates, and polls show her with a strong lead over her closest rival, former Public Works Minister Laurence Golborne. According to a January poll by the Chilean Center for Public Studies, 49 percent of respondents said they intend to vote for her in November, compared to just 11 percent for Golborne.

But with expectations for her presidency so high, Bachelet will be under considerable pressure to meet popular demands, such as reforming the education system and increasing mining royalties. She is well-liked for the moment, but in office she will likely struggle with widespread disillusionment with the political class.

Some 60 percent of Chileans abstained from voting in local elections in October, a sign that many in the country are fed up with traditional politicians on both the left and right. If she fails to live up to hopes, Bachelet could see the same mass demonstrations that have rocked the administration of President Sebastian Piñera.

News Briefs
  • Armed members of a self-defense movement seized a small town in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero and detained local police officers on Tuesday. According to Milenio, some two thousand members of the Union of Organized Towns of Guerrero State (UPOEG) raided the police office of the town of Tierra Colorado after the death of one of its leaders, detaining the head of municipal police and eight other officers. Five were killed in the clash, including three police officers. The Associated Press claims that some opened fire on tourist vehicles during the incident, while EFE reports that the group withdrew from the town after reaching an agreement with Guerrero’s attorney general.
  • The White House announced yesterday that President Barack Obama will travel to Mexico and Costa Rica in early May in order to promote stronger economic ties with both countries. According to La Nacion, in Costa Rica he is slated to meet with several other Central American leaders at a Central American Integration System (SICA) summit.
  • With citizen insecurity playing an important role in the campaigning ahead of presidential elections in Venezuela next month, El Nacional reports that interim president Nicolas Maduro has vowed to fight crime if elected, saying “I want to be the president of peace.”
  • Despite being subpoenaed in November 2010 to testify in this case of U.S.-based mining company Drummond, accused of ordering the murder of two union leaders in 2001, an appellate court in the District of Columbia has ruled that former President Alvaro Uribe is not required to provide testimony.
  • Colombia’s Caracol Radio reports that Hermes Vidal Osorio, a leading land restitution activist, was assassinated yesterday. As Colombia Reports points out, the incident shines a light on the dangers faced by victims’ rights activists in the country.
  • The Guardian has an interesting piece on rising opposition to Chinese investment in Latin America, where analysts say increasing Chinese demand for the region’s natural resources is taking a harsh toll on the environment and the health of local communities. This was recently illustrated by Ecuador’s announcement that it plans to auction off over three million hectares of Amazonian rainforest to Chinese oil companies, despite protests from local indigenous groups.
  • The Washington Post’s Juan Forero looks at how technology like smart phones and GPS trackers are helping the indigenous Paiter Surui in western Brazil become the first tribe to sell carbon credits internationally. If successful, experts say this could become a development model for indigenous peoples looking to preserve their land.
  • The New York Times reports on falling oil production in Brazil, as national oil company Petrobras struggles to rein in debt, delayed projects, and slowly depleting oil reserves. Petrobras’ slow progress, the article begins, “embodies the sluggishness of the nation’s economy itself.”
  • The NYT also features an op-ed by political science professor Anita Isaacs of Haverford College on the limitations of the ongoing trial against Guatemalan ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt. She claims that the process is “ill-suited to dignifying Guatemala’s victims,” as witnesses find themselves subjected to humiliating and traumatizing cross-examination by the defense team.
  • The independent El Salvador Human Rights Commission (CDHES) has announced that it will release a 197-page report next month detailing the torture practices of the military and police during the country’s brutal civil war. The report contains the accounts of 270 torture victims interviewed in 1986, according to Inter Press Service.
Note: yesterday’s Post initially held that Peruvian Cabinet Chief Juan Jimenez said military draftees could be sent to the violent Apurimac and Ene River Valley (known in Spanish as the VRAEM). In reality it was Deputy Defense Minister Mario Cesar Sanchez de Bernardi who said that some draftees would inevitably be deployed to violent areas after six months of training. Jimenez said this would not be the case.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Military Draft in Peru Sparks Controversy

Peru’s military has announced that a military draft in the country will be reinstated in order to meet the needs of its armed forces, but many Peruvians see it as an unfair policy which favors the rich, who can pay a fine to avoid service.

On Friday, Vice-Admiral Jose Ernesto Cueto, head of the military’s Joint Command, announced that the armed forces were short 30,000 recruits. To make up for the loss, he said the military would be implementing a draft in May, in which all 18- to 25-year-old men in Peru would be eligible to be chosen by lottery. El Comercio points out that the legal basis for this lies in an executive order issued in December by President Ollanta Humala, which received almost no publicity at the time.

The decree (.pdf) authorizes the reinstatement of the draft for the first time since 1998, to be used in the event that the number of volunteer recruits “falls below the personnel requirements” of the armed forces. It does not, however, provide a minimum number of necessary recruits, essentially leaving this decision to the military command.

University students and parents are exempt from the draft, and those whose names are selected have the option of paying a fine of 1,850 soles, which is roughly equivalent to $715. Because the fee is prohibitively expensive for most young Peruvians (government statistics put the average monthly income for Lima residents between 14-24 years old at 857 soles, or $331), and only a small, largely elite section of the population attends university, the burden of the draft will fall largely on the country’s poor.

The move has understandably met resistance. Ombudsman Eduardo Vega criticized the draft system for being “discriminatory” to those Peruvians who cannot afford the fine. Human rights activist Wilfredo Ardito expressed similar concerns to La Republica, and also argued that it undermines the push to professionalize the Peruvian armed forces.

In response to such criticism, Vice-Admiral Cueto appeared to modify the announcement somewhat. On Monday he “clarified” that conscripts would not be sent to the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (known in Spanish as the VRAEM), home to the last remaining faction of the Shining Path insurgency. But this was contradicted by Deputy Defense Minister Mario Cesar Sanchez de Bernardi, who said that some draftees would inevitably be deployed to violent areas after six months of training.

News Briefs
  • The Miami Herald reports that Venezuela’s interim president Nicolas Maduro has ordered the arrest of the creators of a website used by thousands of Venezuelans to check currency exchange levels in the unofficial market. Maduro claims that the move is part of an ongoing effort to crack down on currency speculation.
  • El Universal reports that Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam eliminated an oversight commission yesterday which has evaluated the office’s activities for more than a decade. Karam announced that a new monitoring body would be created in its place, but an editorial by La Jornada is skeptical that it will promote transparency any more than its predecessor did.
  • Mexico’s Animal Politico explains key legislation passed by the Mexican Senate last week, intended to support Mexico’s Victims’ Law. The bill organizes victims into different categories depending on the degree to which they have been impacted by violence, and asserts that victims of disappearances have a “right to be located.”
  • In an interview with El Tiempo, Colombia’s national police director has said that Medellin, the country’s second-largest city, is in “crisis” due to an increase in violent crime.  Earlier this month he was ordered to take direct command of law enforcement in the city.
  • In an illustration of the varied nature of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas’ income, Colombia’s prosecutor general's office said yesterday that in 2012 alone it had seized 56,000 hectares of land (215 square miles) owned by the FARC. To put this into perspective: the island country of Grenada consists of just 132.8 square miles of territory.
  • The government of Rio de Janeiro has “indefinitely closed” a stadium intended for use in the 2016 Olympics due to structural problems. The BBC notes that this raises questions about the city’s ability to adequately prepare itself for both the Olympics as well as the 2014 World Cup.
  • Guatemala’s Plaza Publica has an entire special dedicated to the trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, which is currently in recess and will resume on April 1. Especially noteworthy is this piece by Jesuit priest and anthropologist Ricardo Falla on the accusations of genocide against Rios Montt, which looks at whether the charges fit under the UN definition of the crime.
  • On Monday, a Chilean court rejected a request to indict former President Michelle Bachelet -- who has returned to the country ahead of November elections -- for allegedly mishandling the government’s response to a tsunami in 2010 which caused 526 deaths.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

AP: State Department Still Funding Honduran Police Chief Linked to Killings

While the United States Department of State has said it would suspend security aid to Honduran police under the command of the controversial National Police Director Juan Carlos Bonilla, a recent Associated Press investigation finds reason to doubt the claim.

As El Faro detailed in a 2011 report on Bonilla’s record, in 2002 human rights organizations accused him of forming part of an extrajudicial killing squad known as “Los Magnificos” which murdered suspected gang members. He was acquitted in court only after the prosecutor in the case was fired mid-trial.

When the allegations against Bonilla surfaced again last year after he was appointed police chief, the United States announced in August that it would only provide security aid to Honduran law enforcement personnel “who receive training, guidance, and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement and are not under Bonilla’s direct supervision.”

However, according to the AP article:

“The Associated Press has found that all police units are under the control of Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla, nicknamed the "Tiger," who in 2002 was accused of three extrajudicial killings and links to 11 more deaths and disappearances. He was tried on one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.

Honduran law prohibits any police unit from operating outside the command of the director general, according to a top Honduran government security official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. He said that is true in practice as well as on paper.” Celso Alvarado, a criminal law professor and consultant to the Honduran Commission for Security and Justice Sector Reform, said the same.

"Every police officer in Honduras, regardless of their specific functions, is under the hierarchy and obedience of the director general," he said.

As Dan Beeton of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out, Congress has withheld $30 million to the Honduran police due to concerns about Bonilla's past, but the State Department has continued to authorize reduced funding for Honduran law enforcement officers, recently announcing a $16.3 million aid package to help train and equip police.

Considering that these police fall under Bonilla’s command according to Honduran law, the State Department aid may violate its own promise to isolate the controversial police chief.

Meanwhile, allegations of misconduct and corruption continue to mount against Bonilla. In February, General Ricardo Ramirez del Cid -- a former Honduran national police chief -- directly blamed the murder of his son on Bonilla. While officials said the teen had been killed by gang members, Ramirez claimed to have evidence that the killing was the result of a botched kidnapping attempt by corrupt police under Bonilla’s command.

And earlier this month the Liberation and Re-foundation Party (LIBRE) formally charged Bonilla with intimidating its members after he accused the party of working to “destabilize” the country’s security forces.

News Briefs
  • David Smilde and Rebecca Hanson of Venezuela Politics and Human Rights have posted the fourth installment in a series (see the first, second and third posts) analyzing the Venezuelan government’s efforts at improving citizen security in recent years. Crime and violence are on the rise in the country, and the issue has become a major talking point for the opposition in the lead up to next month’s election.  The latest post highlights the creation of the “Gran Mision A Toda Vida Venezuela,” an umbrella group tasked with bringing the government’s various citizen security reform efforts together into a single plan.
  • Interim Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro claimed yesterday that the opposition plans to disrupt food distribution and sabotage power service in the country in an effort to discredit the government ahead of elections on April 14. The Associated Press notes that the opposition has denied similar allegations in the past, and it is difficult not to see this claim as an attempt to distance the government from historic food shortages and relatively frequent blackouts.
  • The Haitian government announced on Monday that an aide to Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe had been assassinated over the weekend by two masked gunmen on a motorcycle. Police officials say Georges Henry Honorat was killed on Saturday evening, but have not publicly suggested a motive. Honorat was the editor of the Haiti Progres weekly newspaper, and secretary general of the anti-Duvalier Popular National Party.
  • A medical commission’s recent finding that former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori is not currently suffering from cancer makes it increasingly unlikely that his request for a pardon on humanitarian grounds will be accepted.  According to former assistant Attorney General Avelino Guillen, the fact that the doctors have found evidence that he suffers from advanced depression does not provide a legal basis for President Ollanta Humala to grant the pardon.
  • La Republica reports that Peru has declared an “environmental state of emergency” in the Pastaza River basin, a remote northern Amazon jungle region along the Ecuadorean border. Indigenous groups in the area have complained for years about unsafe levels of pollution caused by oil drilling, but the government claims that until now officials lacked the necessary environmental standards to address the issue.
  • Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who in 1999 granted a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in order to facilitate peace talks only to see them fall apart in 2002, has come out against the current peace process with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, the former president told the paper he believes that President Juan Manuel Santos is overstepping the limits of his office, as he was not elected on a platform to promote dialogue and thus “does not have a mandate for peace.”
  • The AP reports that in response to the ongoing trial against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, a group of retired Guatemalan soldiers and their families have launched a campaign to defend the military and deny that genocide ever took place in the country. The group does not appear to have much momentum, however, and the news agency noted that so far it includes just 24 people.
  • Meanwhile, the Open Society Justice Initative’s offers a detailed account of the testimony presented by civilian victims of military violence on Friday, the fourth day of the trial. The site also features a description of the 13-year struggle to bring Rios Montt to trial, written by international lawyer Almudena Bernabeu.
  • The Brazilian government is hoping to speed up slowing economic growth by promoting immigration. Brazilian Secretary of Strategic Affairs Ricardo Paes de Barros told the Miami Herald that the government wants to raise the percentage of foreign-born Brazilians to 2 or 3 percent of the population, up from just .2 percent. The paper notes that to meet this goal, the country must accept as many as 6 million immigrants.
  • The Global Post looks at the Bolivian government’s regulated coca cultivation strategy, which has brought about a reduction in overall coca growth in the country. The article asks if the government’s “softer strategy” may be a better approach to drug policy than the U.S.-designed strategies currently being employed in Peru and Colombia.
  • Polling ahead of Paraguay’s April 21 presidential election shows that millionaire businessman Horacio Cartes of the Colorado Party is the frontrunner in the race, with support from 42.7 percent of respondents. His nearest rival is Efrain Alegre, of the Liberal Party, with 29.2 percent, according to a poll published Sunday in Ultima Hora.

Monday, March 25, 2013

IACHR Reform Proposals Shot Down, but the Debate Will Continue

After a marathon 12-hour session, Friday’s Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly ended with a watered-down resolution on reforming the region’s human rights body that ensured continued debate on the issue.

Ultimately, Ecuador’s proposed reforms to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) --which were vocally supported by Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua -- were defeated. The General Assembly voted neither to alter the IACHR’s mandate nor its controversial ability to recommend that states take “precautionary measures” to protect those whose rights are at risk of being violated.

It also voted not to prohibit contributions to the IACHR from countries outside the region and limit the commission’s budget to OAS funds, a proposal which Commission President Jose de Jesus Orozco said amounted to “financial strangulation” of the human rights body.

But while the specific reforms sought by Ecuador and its allies in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc were defeated, they were able to ensure continued debate on the issue.  According to La Nacion, Ecuador refused to sign any resolution which did not lay out a blueprint for future reforms, threatening to withdraw from the Inter-American human rights system altogether if its government’s concerns were not addressed.

Eventually a compromise was brokered by the Argentine government, which proposed a resolution which includes a call to “continue the dialogue regarding the core aspects for strengthening” the Inter-American system. This was approved, and the final resolution was passed by a unanimous vote.

The fact that controversial changes to the IACHR were struck down is good news for the human rights body, but the provision to allow future debate leaves the door open to continued attacks on the commission and its independence.

News Briefs
  • An official medical exam of imprisoned Peruvian ex-president Alberto Fujimori has found no evidence that he is currently suffering from tongue cancer, La Republica reports. Members of Fujimori’s family filed a formal appeal in October asking President Ollanta Humala for his release on health grounds, citing his repeated operations for tongue cancer and overall deteriorating health. The medical team, which has reported its findings to an administration commission tasked with assessing the Fujimoris’ appeal, did find that the former president suffers from depression, but they are split over its severity. With his cancer seemingly in remission, depression alone may not be enough to grant him a pardon on health grounds, especially considering the recently-released footage of him in which he appears to be healthy and in good spirits. On the other hand, polls show that nearly two--thirds of the Peruvian public supports a pardon, a factor which could force Humala’s hand.
  • In a NYT op-ed, Afro-Cuban essayist Roberto Zurbano discusses the difficulties faced by blacks in Cuba. Although he is optimistic about Cuba’s economic reforms, he believes that blacks are not in a position to take advantage of them due to historic disenfranchisement. One of the clearest examples of this, according to Zulano, is the fact that white Cubans dominate the tourist industry, the country’s most lucrative economic sector.
  • Although some claim the ALBA regional bloc is in decline after Hugo Chavez’s death, Uruguay has become the latest country to request to join its monetary system, EFE reports.
  • The New York Times Lede blog has an interview with Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez in which she makes her case against the United States embargo of Cuba, arguing that it provides the government with a handy external excuse for its own economic and political failures. “If there aren’t potatoes, it’s because of the embargo. If there aren’t tomatoes, it’s the embargo. If there aren’t freedoms, it’s the embargo’s fault,” Sanchez said. The dissident blogger’s meeting with pro-embargo U.S. lawmakers last week in Washington failed to change their stance on the issue. Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of the most vocal anti-Castro members of Congress, told Reuters that “there has not been a change in attitude or position about dissidents who advocate for freedom and democracy in Cuba."
  • During a visit to Ecuador on Friday, Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou’s vehicle was attacked in an apparent robbery attempt. La Nacion reports that Ecuadorean intelligence officers intervened and captured the suspects involved, who were apparently clueless as to the identity of their intended victim.
  • The New York Times reports on how Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposed reforms to educations and the country’s telecommunications industry have bolstered his popularity. This may make it easier for him to implement other, more controversial reforms such as opening up the state oil monopoly to private investment.
  • Also in the Times, Randal C. Archibald highlights endemic poverty in the Panamanian city of Colon, which has not seen the same rapid growth as the capital city due partially to a strong a racial divide in Panama.
  • On Friday, Brazilian police evicted a group of indigenous Brazilians from building that they had been occupying in Rio de Janeiro for more than six years. The site is a former indigenous museum, which protestors say has historical significance and should not be torn down. Human rights activists condemned the operation, in which police fired tear gas and used pepper spray against the protestors gathered to support the squatter. As urban studies expert Christopher Gaffney pointed out to the NYT, “By resorting to force, this reflects the general attitude of state authorities toward the people getting in the way of their sports projects.”
  • This Sunday was the 33rd anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by the military government of El Salvador in 1980. The Washington Post profiles hope among Salvadorans that the appointment of Pope Francis, who has advocated for the poor, will pave the way for Romero to be beatified and eventually sainted.
  • The fact that many have taken to calling Pope Francis the first “Latino pope” has fueled a debate over what it means to be “Latino,” the Associated Press reports. Because the pope’s parents were born in Italy, for many Latinos in the U.S. he cannot be considered a true Latino.

Friday, March 22, 2013

OAS Assesses Reforms to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

The Organization of American States (OAS) holds its 44th Special General Assembly in Washington DC today, in which the body will vote on controversial proposals to change the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). According to the schedule posted on the OAS website, consideration of the proposals will begin after 11:00.

Today’s meeting is the result of a process that began in 2011, when the OAS Permanent Council set up a working group to study ways to improve the IACHR. The following year, at a General Assembly in Cochabamba, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa won approval for more drastic reforms to the IACHR. After months of regional campaigning by the Ecuadorean government, support grew for some of Correa’s proposals, and a general consensus in favor of the reforms grew among the countries which have ratified the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights.

These were eventually presented in a joint statement signed at a recent regional meeting in Guayaquil. The eight-point document includes a proposal to relocate the IACHR from its current office in Washington to a country which, unlike the United States, has ratified the American Convention. Correa had stumped for Buenos Aires to be the new seat of the commission, but a new location was not specified in the joint statement.

It also includes a proposal to amend the way in which the IACHR is funded. The reformers are calling for all funding for the commission from countries outside the region to be abolished. This would be problematic for the human rights watchdog, as it currently receives about a third of its funding from Europe. As the Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) notes in a helpful overview of today’s OAS session, the commission’s much-lauded Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression could lose nearly its entire budget if this is passed.

In addition, the Guayaquil statement includes a provision which would bring all eight of the commission’s issue-specific rapporteurships under the general budget of the OAS, instead of allowing individual states to finance them directly.

In a press conference yesterday, Commission President Jose de Jesus Orozco said that these proposals amounted to “financial strangulation.” He claimed that the OAS budget as a whole is insufficient, which forces the IACHR to seek outside finding. Orozco also pointed to the IACHR’s own reform proposals, which it presented to the OAS last week, as proof that the body is participating in and “fulfilling its role” in the reform process.

Another issue to be addressed today is the IACHR’s authority to recommend that states take “precautionary measures” to protect those whose rights it deems are at risk of being violated. While Ecuador was unable to gain enough regional support for revoking this authority to include it in the Guayaquil statement, the Ecuadorean government will likely try to independently introduce a measure calling for the end of this practice. Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño has spent the last several weeks touring the region and drumming up support for his country’s suggested reforms, so backing for such a proposal may have increased since.

News Briefs
  • Although some Colombian media reported this week that an agreement between the government and FARC rebels on agrarian reform would be ready yesterday, the two parties did not come to a final agreement this week, Semana reports. They will begin negotiations in Havana again on April 2.
  • Caracol Radio reports that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has signed a contract authorizing the construction of the 100,000th free low-income home in the country, paid for by money seized from drug trafficking organizations. This comes eight years after a law authorizing the government to use seized funds went into effect.
  • The Venezuelan government’s recent accusations that the United States intelligence agencies are plotting a coup in Venezuela have been met with apparent confusion in Washington. An anonymous administration official told Reuters: “Some of the recent false allegations are bizarre and unhelpful, similar with efforts in the past to draw us into an unnecessary debate.”
  • The New York Times has more on the recent statement by Francisco Jalics, one of two priests who Pope Francis is accused of having identified as dissidents to the Argentine military junta during the country’s Dirty War. This week Jalics publicly denied the allegations against the pope. On Wednesday, he told reporters, “The fact is: Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio.”
  • Spain’s El Pais reports that several liberation theologians in Latin America have endorsed Pope Francis, largely for his more humble attitude towards the office and his recent call for the Church to do more work against poverty.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Amnesty for the FARC?

On Wednesday, El Espectador reported that the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are on the verge of reaching a final agreement on the land reform section of an eventual peace treaty, a key issue in the peace process for the rebels.  If true, it would suggest that the dialogue has a much higher chance of ending in an eventual peace accord and the FARC’s demobilization.

A land reform package resulting from the talks would allow the FARC to bolster their political credibility, which has been battered by allegations of drug trafficking and criminal activity. It would likely pave the way for the group to be able participate with more legitimacy in democratic politics.

The rebels appear open to this possibility, and last year Colombian lawmakers passed the Legal Framework for Peace law, which has created a basis for demobilized guerrillas to run for office.

But while impediments to the FARC’s participation in the democratic process are falling away, one major obstacle persists: the issue of the guerrilla group’s human rights violations. In the process of allowing the guerrillas to participate in conventional politics, many fear that their participation in rights abuses will be overlooked.

In a report (.pdf) presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council yesterday, the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed this same fear. The report recommends that Colombia investigate all human rights abuses linked to the conflict “as opposed to avoiding addressing past violations through amnesties and other forms of impunity.”

The International Center for Transitional Justice notes that the Legal Framework for Peace law permits lawmakers to pass additional legislation allowing for the “strategic prioritization and selection of criminal cases for investigation and prosecution,” which would likely mean softer sentences or even partial amnesty for FARC members. This would be devastating for victims of guerrilla abuses, and may even violate Colombia’s human rights obligations depending on the crimes committed.

At the same time, FARC leaders are unlikely to agree to a deal which doesn’t appear to afford them some kind of legal protection. Thus the government will be forced to find a difficult balance in an eventual peace treaty: making the future prosecution of FARC members seem as unlikely as possible while still showing the public that the rebels’ abuses will not go entirely unpunished.

News Briefs
  • At an Organization of American States General Assembly meeting tomorrow, OAS member states will discuss changes to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The declaration resulting from the recent meeting in Guayaquil, as well as the recommendations of a working group appointed by the OAS Permanent Council (made up of ambassadors from all OAS member states), will be discussed and voted upon. El Pais has a helpful overview of the main forces involved in the reform push, which may ultimately limit the commission’s independence. According to Peru’s La Republica, so far there is little agreement in the Permanent Council’s working group over what reforms are needed to the human rights body, meaning that the odds of a significant overhaul passing tomorrow may be unlikely. Ecuador’s El Comercio notes that a proposal to re-locate the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to Argentina, which was put forward by the Ecuadorean government, will not be on the table.
  • The Venezuelan government cut off a line of communication with the U.S. established by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson yesterday, claiming that the top diplomat had violated Venezuelan sovereignty by supporting the candidacy of opposition leader Henrique Capriles. El Universal reports that Foreign Minister Elias Jaua referred to Capriles as “Jacobson’s candidate.”
  • After meeting with a local coalition of community vigilante groups, the government of the Mexican state of Guerrero has announced that it will create a legal framework for the growing “self-defense” movement there. Animal Politico has the state government’s 8-point plan for coordinating the groups.  
  • While Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is facing mounting criticism for his failure to rein in the country’s drug-related violence, he called on his country yesterday to give his crime policies a year to sink in before judging their effectiveness. La Jornada reports that the president told reporters he believes the public will see “favorable results, a noticeable reduction” in that time.
  • Inter Press Service profiles a movement in Honduras to push the mining industry to be more transparent and responsive to the needs of local communities. Although the Honduran government has announced that it will join a global initiative to publish and verify the tax payments of extraction companies, many are skeptical that the country can implement the necessary policies.
  • According to Telesur, Bolivian President Evo Morales held a meeting with several former presidents and foreign ministers of the country yesterday to consult them on implementing a “state policy” of gaining access to the Pacific Ocean.
  • A new study by the Carnegie Institution for Science has found alarming levels of mercury in adults in Peru’s southeast Madre de Dios region, caused by rampant illegal mining in the area. According to the study, 78 percent of adults have unsafe levels of the toxic metal in their system in the region’s capital city of Puerto Maldonado.
  • Francisco Jalics, one of two priests who Pope Francis is accused of having identified as dissidents to the Argentine military junta during the country’s Dirty War, has come forward to publicly deny the allegations against the pope. On Wednesday, he told reporters, “The fact is: Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio.”
  • After more than 50 days, two Paraguayan campesinos accused of participating in the murder of six policemen in a land conflict last June have ended their hunger strike, the AP reports. Outrage over the government’s handling of the conflict contributed to the ouster of former President Fernando Lugo last year.